Temescal Ceremony in Sayulita Mexico
I wrote this 2 years ago after my first visit to Sayulita Mexico. I’m going there for a retreat again this coming March.
Recently I was in Sayulita Mexico scouting sites for a retreat I am leading there next spring. After touring several locations, my host presented me with a list of activities to choose from as afternoon integration experiences following mornings of yoga and meditation. The list contained the usual items, hiking, paddleboard, snorkeling, visit to an archeological site, and something called a Temezcal. My host informed me this was a “Mayan sweat lodge” and encouraged me to consider it for my students. A google search revealed that Temezcal was, “The Latest Wellness Trend with roots in the Mayan culture.” With this introduction I doubted the authenticity and depth that would be offered, but with my host’s urging, I attended a Temezcal ceremony and was I pleasantly surprised!
Late in the afternoon we left the village of Sayulita in an old pick-up truck with several members of the local community. A long drive took us to the rural property of an intentional community that focused on respect for the land. A walk through the forest brought us to a hut where the ceremony was to be held. It was a domed clay structure with 4 portals, opening to the cardinal directions. Its diameter was about 14 feet and it was about 5 feet high.
The facilitator (Shaman) was a lean Mexican man about 30 years of age. The rustic rural setting, the small group of 9 people, and the low price for the experience led me to hope that it would not be as commercial as I had anticipated.
After an explanation of the symbolism in Spanish, with brief translations for me as the only non-Hispanic member, the leader began to sing and make offerings of herbs into a fire. I recognized tobacco and sage among them. Then we circumambulated the fire and entered the hut to sit around a fire pit dug in the center. My ears perked up when we were instructed to breathe through our nose and lie down if the heat was too much. No mention was made of leaving the hut and no one asked if they had health conditions that should be considered.
The leader’s helper began to shovel glowing rocks from the fire outside and drop them into the fire pit. When five bowling ball size rocks were in the pit, heavy blankets were placed over the hut’s doors and the leader began to ladle water onto the hot rocks. The hut was pitch dark and the steam was intense. The leader and most of the group began to chant loudly and a drum was beaten very quickly. This went on for what seemed to be a long time. Then the portals were opened and the steam cleared.
After a brief respite, the doors were covered again and the process repeated. There were 4 cycles in all, one for each of the four directions. Each was a little shorter but more intense than the one before. After the first round someone stated that they needed to go outside, they were not discouraged. The unspoken message seemed to be that it was best to stay inside, but if you needed to leave you could.
After the fourth cycle of steam, the portals were cleared and one-by-one we exited the opening we had entered. Outside the leader’s assistant doused us with a bucket of cool water. By then it was dark and a full moon was rising. I felt vulnerable and open, exhilarated and dehydrated.
Reflecting back on the experience I remember a moment when it seemed the intense heat and steam would never end and something inside told me I would die. The rapid beat of the drum seemed to invite my heart to beat just as fast, and I imagined myself having a heart attack, miles from medical care, and I felt very afraid.
Moments of fear such as this can pull us out of our normal lives and we can see the structures of our work and social life crumbling. I believe this is part of the intended healing process: to briefly be free of the support and burden of the structures that we live in, to have them break apart and receive them again with gratitude when they reform. And perhaps to leave one or two behind that no longer serve us.
I have participated in sweat lodges before and with a focused intention, but never as part of a Mesoamerican healing ritual. Several aspects of the experience reminded me of my previous experience and study of yoga.
The root of the yoga tradition is in the Vedas, composed long before yoga was a spiritual practice. Vedic rituals involved purifying a space and then building a fire in it. The fire was seen as a conduit that conveyed prayers as offerings to the gods. The offerings drew the gods down to the ritual space to receive them. These ritual fires are aligned with the cosmos, occurring on certain days of the year, usually at dawn or dusk, and with the priest or priests facing in specific cardinal directions. These rituals could last for long periods of time and focused attention was required as the prayers offered were very complex.
Later on, this fire was internalized and became “Yogagni”- yoga fire, which was generated by the heat of restraints such as Yama, Niyama, fasting, and the insecurities of the renunciate life. It was also ignited by asanas and pranayama. By observing what was revealed by the fire, the Yogis transformed.
My search on-line revealed that the Temezcal ceremonies sometimes involved hallucinogens such as Ayahuasca or Peyote. I could only imagine what the intense experience of steam and darkness would be like while hallucinating and experiencing the extreme nausea that can occur when these substances are ingested.
The Vedic fire rituals were also accompanied by ‘plant medicine.’ A plant called “Soma” was crushed and the juice mixed with milk and honey. A portion was drunk by the priest and a share offered to the gods who would come down to drink it. The Soma plant was lost in ancient times and no one knows what it was. Some researchers believe it was Ephedra or a hallucinogenic mushroom. After my Temezcal experience I began to wonder if perhaps Soma also caused nausea which could contribute to the power of the Vedic rituals.
I was also reminded of the pinnacle of pranayama practice which is considered by the old texts to be breath retention (Kumbhaka). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that in some practices the serious students of pranayama should hold their breath until they, “felt the touch of death.” I had practiced this way many times. With breath retention fear arose and I would find myself in the unknown and without support. With the release of the breath holding there was brief peace before the next retention and, like steam from hot rocks, intense desire for something to be different would arise and the structures of life melt away.
I do not usually recommend this kind of pranayama practice, nor am I recommending intense Temezcal experiences with or without hallucinogens. If someone chooses these kinds of experiences or practices the decision needs to come from a clear space. The practice or experience should happen in an appropriate context, and be undertaken with the recognition that the student is stepping outside the rational realm, temporarily leaving behind many of society’s supports.
I was amazed to find in ancient Vedic and Mesoamerican Mayan rituals similarities to the pranayama practice I received from Swami Kripalu. The experiences of fear and the loss of structure they bring can come to us anytime without our choosing. They come as the loss of status, health, objects, or persons that we love. Seeking these experiences in a forest, jungle, or intense yoga practice can draw them to us. Regardless of how the experiences come, I believe all traditions would agree, the real question is how we respond to them. How we respond will be strongly influenced by how we live and the practices we do day by day.